I was already planning to use the post-Valentine’s mood to offer another installment of Boston 1775’s very intermittent “Can This Marriage Be Saved?” series. Then I read Caitlin G. D. Hopkins’s articles on Elizabeth Palmer of Little Compton, Rhode Island, and knew my tale would have to take second place.
Caitlin’s inquiry began in 2009 with Palmer’s gravestone, which reads:
In Memory ofCaitlin added, “To make matters worse, Elizabeth’s gravestone stands next to a stone dedicated to Lidia Palmer (d.1754), who was the wife of Simeon Palmer.” Was Simeon secretly pining for Elizabeth? If Elizabeth never became Simeon Palmer’s wife, why did the stone neglect to mention her surname? Who erected that stone anyway?
Should have been the
Wife of Mr.
who died Augst. 14th
1776 in the 64th Year
of her Age.
Commenter Randy Nonenmacher offered a 1901 reference with more answers. The explanation begins:
The first church of Little Compton, R. I. was organized in 1704 under Rev. Richard Billings, a man of prominence and ability, much beloved, and exerted a strong influence over his charge. He had one idiosyncrasy, however; he firmly believed in cats as an article of diet, and fatted them for the purpose.Can this marriage be saved?
Amongst his parishioners was a man, Simeon Palmer, of the fine old family resident in Little Compton. He was wealthy married first Lydia Dennis, Aug. 25, 1745, and had Susannah, Gideon, Humphrey, Sarah, Walter and Patience. At some time between 1745 and 1752 he had sunstroke which left him mildly insane and he adopted the views of his minister on cats and insisted on his family using them for food.
As Caitlin notes, Victorian antiquarians of the sort who preserved this tale loved stories about eccentrics, and may have embellished them, or even made them up to explain oddities like the Elizabeth Palmer gravestone. I wonder what Sibley’s Harvard Graduates says about the Rev. Mr. Billings, class of 1698. A 1906 history of the Little Compton church dismisses the story (carefully not mentioning the minister’s alleged role) as the concoction of “the good old aunties of our town.” That book also notes that the epitaph inspired a 1905 novel (set in the nineteenth century) titled Saint Abigail of the Pines.
To me this story feels authentic because it ends with an accommodation among people driven by economic needs rather than with a tidy moral lesson for the present day. In any event, it’s good to know that Elizabeth Palmer lived long enough to see her daughter married, apparently more happily.